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Sidney Lanier High School principal Lewis Washington Jr. can peer through his office window and see the erosion of desegregation efforts at his school over the past 30 years. The Montgomery, Ala., school, a noble structure with Gothic spires that went up in 1929, once educated the children of Alabama governors and many other state leaders. In 1964, when a few black students enrolled, it was the first high school in the county to integrate. Today, Sidney Lanier stands as a symbol of how Alabama’s schools, like many others across the South, have become more segregated than at any time since 1970, according to a recent Harvard University study. The student body that Washington sees strolling the campus has only six whites out of 1,100 students enrolled. “We are 99 percent African-American and back then it was totally reverse,” Washington said. “It affects the way children grow up with each other, and that’s a cost that’s more than the cost of busing children to one site or the other.” Obvious gains have been made since the landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, which came at a time when public schools were legally and almost totally segregated across the South. But a trend toward resegregation has occurred mostly through the advent of private schools, neighborhood districting and a loosening of federal court mandates for desegregated classrooms. Critics of the shift toward resegregation say the end result is lower test scores at predominantly black schools, and both black and white students being less prepared for an increasingly diverse world. The Harvard study found that Alabama schools, after making gains in desegregation throughout the 1970s, began resegregating in the 1980s and 1990s. By 1998, the study said, the percentage of black students in majority-white schools had dropped to 31.4 percent, about the same as in 1970. According to the study, desegregation in Southern states peaked in 1988, when 43.5 percent of black students attended majority-white schools. But by 1998, the percentage of black students in majority-white schools dropped to 32.7 percent — lower than it had been at any time since 1970. The South was defined as the 11 states from Virginia to Texas. “The black political leadership and the black clergy have got to start beating the drums again about what’s going on,” said black political leader Joe Reed, who also holds a post with the Alabama Education Association. Reed and others argue that several Supreme Court decisions have essentially authorized a return to segregated neighborhood schools. Now, many school boards “say we don’t discriminate based on race,” said Tuskegee civil rights attorney Fred Gray. “Their position is that (resegregation) is not the result of discrimination, rather it’s the result of residential patterns, economic changes and other patterns.” Dennis Parker, assistant counsel for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, also points to an increase in students attending mostly white private schools. The construction of new homes often results in the building of new schools catering to white students, Parker said. “I’m not saying it’s intentional discrimination, but if you have houses that are three-, four- and five-hundred thousand dollars, then fewer blacks are going to be living in these houses,” he said. There are other issues, too. Some school board members have said they didn’t even realize they were under a court order to desegregate because they weren’t serving on the board when the orders were handed down. “A lot of the old orders have fallen by the wayside,” Parker said. “I think there’s probably also an increasing reluctance on the part of some courts to order continuing aggressive measures to desegregate schools.” Even the harshest critics of resegregation say Alabama has come a long way since the Brown ruling. In that case from Kansas, the high court declared school segregation unconstitutional. Efforts to integrate in Alabama met with fierce opposition. In the mid-1960s, then-Gov. George Wallace sent state troopers to prevent the integration of the schools in Macon County, outside Montgomery. Despite the shift toward resegregation, Alabama is still doing much better than many Northern states, said Gary Orfield, author of the Harvard study. He said New York, Michigan, Illinois and California were the four most segregated states in the nation, based on the percentage of black students in predominantly white schools. At Sidney Lanier, the high school once attended by the children of Govs. Wallace and James E. “Big Jim” Folsom and other white Alabama leaders, the dramatic shift from mainly white to mainly black took place quickly, in a span of about 10 years, said Washington, the principal. Starting in the early 1980s, “white flight” took hold, with many white residents leaving for the suburbs as more blacks moved in. Then, a neighborhood schools plan was introduced and school desegregation was no longer assured, Washington said. Many agree the main effect of the trend toward resegregation has been that schools in trouble because of low test scores are primarily black. “The whole idea wasn’t to integrate these schools just to integrate,” Gray said. “It was because they were receiving an inferior education.” Copyright 2001 Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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